Garage sale toothbrush cup is 4,000 years old

A pottery vessel bought at a garage sale for a pittance turns out to be a 4,000-year-old archaeological treasure. An avid collector of antiquities and oddities, Karl Martin bought this pot and another at a car boot sale in Willington, Derbyshire, for £4 (a whopping five bucks and a dime at the current rate of exchange). He thought it might be old, very old even, and he liked its simple line painted animal figures, but he didn’t research it further at the time. He just put it to use in his bathroom to hold his toothbrush and paste. Martin says he even got a few toothpaste smears on it and thought nothing of it.

He didn’t follow up on his old toothbrush pot, even though his passion for antiquities had inspired him to get a job at Hansons Auctioneers two years before his bargain purchase. He was at work, in fact, when he saw line painted pottery that reminded him of his old toothbrush holder and asked Hansons’ antiquities expert James Brenchley to look at his pot. He identified it as an ancient piece of pottery made in the Indus Valley area in around 1900 B.C.

James Brenchley, head of antiquities at Hansons Auctioneers, said: “This is an Indus Valley Harappan Civilisation pottery jar dating back to 1900 BC. This was a Bronze Age civilisation mainly in the north western regions of South Asia.

“Along with Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, it was one of three early cradles of civilisations of the Old World, and of the three, the most widespread. The civilisation was primarily located in modern-day India and Pakistan as well as Afghanistan.”

“I do come across items like this from time to time and was familiar with the painting technique. It was probably brought back to the UK years ago by wealthy travellers.”

Martin decided to put up for auction at Hansons’ antiquities sale November 26th. He made a tidy profit considering his £4 investment but it was no windfall. The hammer price was £80.

“Perhaps I should have held on to it. I feel a bit guilty about keeping my toothbrush in it now.”

Uh, yeah friend. Of course you should have kept it. I’ll take free and clear title to a cool ancient pot over a hundred bucks any day. Besides, you owed it a little mantelpiece display or something after all those years it suffered watching you spit into a sink.

London Medieval Murder Map goes live

Coroners’ inquests in Britain have made frequent appearances on this here blog, but only in their role in determining whether archaeological material is official treasure according to the criteria of the Treasure Act. Commenters have occasionally remarked on how incongruous it is that coroners are tasked with investigating ancient hoards and medieval brooches and Bronze Age hand axes as well as suspicious deaths. Thanks to the efforts of the University of Cambridge, Institute of Criminology, Violence Research Centre, we can now give the profession’s original purpose all due attention.

UC researchers have created an interactive online map of 142 murders that took place in London in the first half of the 14th century. The London Medieval Murder Map documents the location of the crimes, the years they took place, the means of murder, the identity of the victims and, if known, the killer. You can hover over each pin on the map to get a preview of the information about the homicide that occurred there; click on them to read the whole story. Filters on the top right allow you to group the crimes by categories — victim gender, weapon used, whether the location was public or private, the ward the crime scene was in — and you can explore the vicious underbelly of London on two different maps. One is an Elizabethan-era map, so drawn two centuries after the murders, but it offers a birds-eye view of a London before the explosion of urban development made it diverge radically from the city in the 14th century. The other was created in 1270. To switch between the two, click on the icons in the upper left half of the map.

This extraordinary record of crime in medieval London comes down to us in its entirety from Coroner’s inquests. After a sudden death, suicide, accident, murder, any death that was not clearly attributable to natural causes, the coroner and sheriff would assemble a jury to investigate the circumstances. Coroners had jurisdiction over the 24 wards — neighborhoods inside and outside the old Roman wall that were largely self-governing — of London. Juries were composed of free men from the ward in which the body had been found and from three adjacent wards. Juries could have as few as 12 members or as many as 50.

The conclusions drawn by the officials and jury at the inquest were documented in the Coroners’ Rolls. In the case of homicides, they included a summary of the location and time of the murder, the parties involved, the weapon used and the types of the wounds. The rolls also included the jury’s answers to questions about witnesses, the fate of the murders and items found at the scene of the crime.

There are nine extant Coroners’ Rolls from London between 1300 and 1340. The years from 1301 through 1314 and 1317 through 1320 have been lost. The 142 homicides pinned on the map are the murders documented in the surviving Coroners’ Rolls.

It’s a fascinating browse. The information encompasses not just the Clue-like summations (“Male in public with a long knife”), but also interesting names, vernacular that can delicately be described as colorful and an overall picture of life and death in the big city that is sometimes rendered in minute detail. There are also statistical data that can be compiled from the rolls, like for instance that by far the most murders, 52.8% of them, took place in public squares and streets. That’s 75 murders. Only six happened in a tavern, the same number that happened in a religious building. Brothels and prisons were comparatively safe places with only two and one murder recorded respectively. The weapon of choice was the long knife, with 51 bodies on its blade. The short knife takes second place with 29, and the bronze goes to the staff. Ten more people were killed with staffs than with swords.

Seal of 14th century woman found in Denmark

Seal stamps from the 1300s are rare finds, and ones that belonged to women are as rare as it gets. Finding the seal of a 14th century woman who actually appears by name in historical sources is practically unprecedented. Lasse Rahbek Ottesen, a truly committed amateur archaeologist, has done just that, discovering the bronze seal of Elisabeth Buggesdatter at Hodde in western Jutland.

Elisabeth Buggesdatter was the daughter of Niels Bugge, one of the richest men in Jutland. He was on the council of King Valdemar IV Atterdag and fought with the ambitious monarch against the Margraviate of Brandenburg and the Duchy of Mecklenburg in 1349, but he turned on the king when Valdemar sought to wrest control of Jutland from the nobles. Niels Bugge was one of the leaders of a rebellion against Valdemar in the early 1350s. The rebellion ended with a treaty in 1353, but tensions flared repeatedly over the decade. Bugge was one of three members of Jutland’s ruling nobility who met with Vademar the Christmas of 1358 to discuss detente. The discussions failed and all three men were assassinated on their way home.

One of his most important holdings, the estate of Hald near Viborg, he acquired through his second wife Ingeborg Pedersdatter. Their daughter Elizabeth was born around 1346. After her father’s murder, Elisabeth inherited Hald. She married Gotskalk Skarpenberg, member of a German noble family that had immigrated to Denmark in the 13th century, and established herself as a prominent figure in Danish society. She spoke at the tinge, the legislative and judicial assemblies of medieval Denmark, and is noted in the historical record as a wealthy property owner. She sold the family estate of Hald to Queen Margrete (possibly under less than entirely voluntary conditions) but her will attests that she was still a rich woman when she died around 1402.

Her political prominence, extensive property holdings and wealth would have made a personal seal stamp a necessity for Elizabeth to see to her business. Seals were impressed into wax and the stamped wax affixed to legal documents, property deeds, declarations, anything that needed the official imprimatur of relevant parties. The stamp was like a signature on steroids. If it was lost or stolen, someone of nefarious intent could sign documents under that person’s name, a medieval version of identity theft. When someone died, their seal was usually destroyed to prevent shenanigans. That’s why few of them have survived.

Ottesen had to work hard to find this one. He wasn’t just scanning a field with a metal detector, although he has done that too. He researched the hell out of it, using aerial photography, topographical analysis, studying place names and the historical record. Then he deployed the ol’ shoe leather technique, systematically walking a snowy field in the morning sun looking for glass, flint or anything else of archaeological significance. He found the stamp on the ground, took a picture of it and sent it to the local museum.

That was four years ago. The seal has since been studied by experts at the National Museum and now we know who wielded it in life.

That the seal belonged to a woman was confirmed after examination by the National Museum, which found the inscription ‘Elsebe Buggis Dotter’, meaning Elisabeth Buggesdatter, on the stamp.

“It is outstanding to be able to connect this very personal object to a person we know from historical sources,” National Museum curator Marie Laursen said.

“That the owner was a woman who was among the leading figures in society in the 14th century makes this discovery even more spectacular,” she added.

Early Anglo-Saxon cemetery found in Lincolnshire

University of Sheffield archaeologists have discovered an Anglo-Saxon cemetery in Scremby, Lincolnshire. The burials of more than 20 individuals were unearthed at the site in the Lincolnshire Wolds. They date from the late 5th century to the mid-sixth and virtually all of them include rich grave goods.

It was those grave goods that alerted archaeologists to the presence of the cemetery. A local metal detector hobbyist exploring the field discovered a number of Anglo-Saxon pieces of jewelry and weapon fittings and responsibly notified the Lincolnshire Finds Liaison Officer. Because the objects found — gilded brooches, spear heads, iron shield bosses — are indicators of Anglo-Saxon era burials, archaeologists were brought in to excavate the site.

Dr Hugh Willmott, Senior Lecturer in European Historical Archaeology from the University of Sheffield, said: “Almost without exception, the burials were accompanied by a rich array of objects, in keeping with the funerary rites adopted during the early centuries of the Germanic migrations to eastern England.

“What is particularly interesting is the significant proportion of very lavish burials which belonged to women. These women wore necklaces made from sometimes hundreds of amber, glass and rock crystal beads, used personal items such as tweezers, carried fabric bags held open by elephant ivory rings, and wore exquisitely decorated brooches to fasten their clothing.

“Two women even received silver finger rings and a style of silver buckle commonly associated with Jutish communities in Kent. Furnished burials belonging to males were also identified, including a number buried with weaponry such as spears and shields.”

Individual child burials have not been found so far in the cemetery. The only child unearthed was an infant buried with an adult woman. The baby was cradled in the woman’s left arm.

The skeletal remains discovered in the burial ground are in good condition and will be extensively analyzed to learn more about the early Anglo-Saxon community that inhabited the area. The bones will be given a full osteological examination at the University of Sheffield Department of Archaeology. Stable isotope analysis of the teeth will reveal where the deceased grew up based on the kind of food they ate and water they drank as children.

The metal artifacts will also be tested for the elemental composition of alloys and the ivory rings to identify the species of elephant they came from.

Sarcophaghus found in Luxor tomb opened live

In a first for modern archaeology, Egyptian officials opened an intact sarcophagus in front of a cadre of international press on Saturday. The wood sarcophagus dates to the 18th Dynasty (1550 B.C.-1300 B.C.) is in excellent condition, its still-bright paint covering both lid and base. Fortunately for the government and the assembled representatives of the fourth estate, there was something inside. When the lid was raised, the well-preserved mummified remains of a woman, possibly named Thuya, were found inside.

It was discovered by archaeologists from the French Institute of Eastern Archeology (IFAO) and the University of Strasbourg in the necropolis of El-Assasif on the west bank of the Nile just north of Luxor (ancient Thebes). Located between the Valley of the Queens and the Valley of the Kings, the Assasif necropolis was used as a burial ground for nobles and important pharaonic officials mainly during the 18th, 25th and 26th dynasties from around 1550 to 525 B.C. Two intact sarcophagi were discovered in Tomb TT33. The other one, which also dates to the 18th Dynasty, painted in Rishi (feather) style, was opened by experts in scholarly privacy without the whole Al Capone’s vault spectacle. It too contained a mummy in apparently good condition.

In the five months of excavations at El-Assasif this year, a third sarcophagus was unearthed by the Egyptian archaelogical mission in Tomb TT28. The tomb was carved into the rock during the Middle Kingdom (1975 B.C.-1640 B.C.), but was reused in the Late Period (664 B.C.-332 B.C.). The sarcophagus dates to the 26th Dynasty, is made of black wood and is intricately carved. The engraved decorations are inlaid with gold foil. Hieroglyphics identify him as Thaw-Inkhet-If, overseer of the mummification shrine of the Temple of Mut, one of the four most important temples in the Karnak Temple Complex.

It was found in a burial chamber painted with vividly colored scenes depicting the tomb’s owner and family. Another chamber in the tomb contained a group of mummies carefully stacked in the small space, likely family members.

All three mummies found in the sarcophagi will be examined further in laboratory conditions. They will be analyzed for more precise dating and X-rayed to discover more about their lives and deaths.